Winging it: the pianist improvising the soundtrack to the Silent Film Fest
With the Toronto Silent Film Festival on now and riding the wave of public interest generated by the Oscars success of The Artist, it seems silent films are in again.
The film fest aims to recreate the 1920s movie experience by keeping the tradition of having live musicians play along to each film. While the musical accompaniment is a crucial part of the silent-movie experience — it’s hard to imagine Charlie Chaplin’s antics without mentally hearing some hyperactive piano music as well — surprisingly, the whole soundtrack is made up on the spot, improvised by the musicians as they go along.
One of those musicians is William O'Meara, a world renowned organist and pianist who is performing at the fest for the third time this year. He will be providing the accompaniment to the “1000 Laffs” segment of the festival (April 1, 4 p.m., Fox Theatre).
For “1000 Laffs,” O’Meara will improvise his way through five short silent comedies that feature such screen legends as Fatty Arbuckle, Buster Keaton and, of course, Charlie Chaplin.
He prepares by watching each film two or three times but says that, on show night, he is completely inspired by what he sees on screen.
“I think comedy is more difficult to accompany. It’s meant to be funny all the time and the comedy is very physical,” he explains. “There were no stunt doubles then or the witty banter that is used in comedy today. When they fell, they really fell. You have to reflect that in the music, and make sure you pace yourself and match the physicality of the movie.”
O'Meara believes that silent movies are still very relevant today, and says that adding audio to films was undoubtedly a technological advancement, but not necessarily an improvement on the art form.
“The great thing about silent movies is that they draw viewers in, in such a different fashion,” says O’Meara. “Once you’ve adapted to it, it’s a much more intense experience.” Like eliminating one of the senses, the pianist explains, the absence of an audio track sharpens your focus and forces the audience to pay closer attention, noticing things they might not see in today’s blockbusters.
When asked if he thinks music tells the story in silent films, O’Meara is very firm that a film accompanist should always remain in the background. “Accompany is the key word,” he says. “I often say that the best compliment I could get is for someone to say, ‘I completely forgot you were there.’”
Toronto Silent Film Festival, various locations. To April 3. Tickets $10 - $20.